The NFC West is up for grabs. Wanna know what you’re playing for?
The 3-1 Seattle Seahawks host the 3-1 Los Angeles Rams on Thursday night, giving each team an opportunity to build a one-game lead on the other. If the Seahawks win, they can open from a position of dominance after losing the division to LA over the last two years, and it’ll ease the pressure of knowing you’ll probably need a road win over them later on in the season.
If you’re the Rams, you’re looking to put a 55-40 home loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs behind you plus a road win over a division rival that makes it all the more likely that you’ll finish ahead of them in January.
And if you’re the 3-0 San Francisco 49ers, you’re hoping a tie fricks up both of their worlds.
What these teams are playing for is not the right to be in first place but the right to probably be in first place whenever the 49ers lose. There’s a lot on the line and a lot to find out about Los Angeles after giving up 50+ for the second time in less than a year, so I sent 5 Qs to Joe McAtee at Turf Show Times and in turn he sent me 5 corresponding As.
Q: So, I guess here we are: the quarterback I’m setting my sights on this season appears to be Jared Goff. I have done this in the past with Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning, and plenty of others that I’m forgetting, but basically I think Goff has been overrated.
I’ve taken it a step further this time though, telling people that I think Goff is straight up just bad and that he’s not long for the Rams. This might sound crazy after he signed an extension, but my bold prediction was that the team would move on from him by the end of 2021.
As of now, Goff is 25th in passer rating, first in interceptions, and he’s not enjoying near the same success as he and the rest of the offense did in the first two years of Sean McVay. So this is my opportunity for you: make me look like a fool. Why is Goff actually much better than I think and who is most to blame for below-average passing statistics through not just the first four games of this season, but the three games in the 2018 playoffs?
A: Man, if there was ever a time for me not to try and inflate Goff’s performance, this might be it. Let me try to shake off any recency bias and just try to take stock of things now that we’re into Goff’s fourth year and set to head into his major contract extension that keeps him a Ram through 2024.
Let me start with the positives. He’s got a great physical skill set with a cannon of an arm (albeit with a long windup). He has really good pocket presence and a subtle genius to some of his movements under duress to get into space where he can throw. He’s a tough competitor. He’s a good leader. I know the Hard Knocks clip with him confused as to where the sun rises and sets would suggest otherwise, but he’s actually quite intelligent.
Now for some criticisms. He’s obviously not a dual-threat QB which forces him to rely on scheme, blocking and route-running to create. He’s much, much worse under pressure than he is clean to a higher degree than his peers. And in 2019, he’s been woefully inconsistent in terms of his accuracy.
As to what’s going on since essentially the bye week in 2018, it’s a combination of a couple of things. One is the six-man front that was first implemented by then-Chicago Bears Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio who’s now the Denver Broncos head coach. It takes away a lot of the lateral stretching that Rams Head Coach Sean McVay installed immediately when he became the Rams’ signal caller in 2017, and the Rams have been slow to unlock some productive responses against it.
Two is the quality of the blocking. The Rams’ offensive line in 2018 was fantastic overall. They’re the primary reason the Rams beat the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional playoff. But against the Bears and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and last week particularly against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they have been poor. Bad. Woeful. Mush. After three weeks, PFF ranked them 10th in the NFL. After four weeks, they dropped to dead last. That’s a fair indication of how poorly they were in Week 4. And the last part is the combination of Cooper Kupp and Todd Gurley. Kupp wasn’t around down the stretch of last year after tearing his ACL, and Gurley has been...well, that’s a different drama altogether. But you combine those factors, and Goff and the offense as a whole have had issues since coming out of the bye last year. It was the story coming out of the Super Bowl. It’s the story of 2019.
I wouldn’t bet against Jared being able to help unlock the offense moving forward though.
Q: Is Clay Matthews Aaron Donald now? Five sacks for Matthews, two for Dante Fowler, and one for Donald. Is the defense a lot different because of the addition of Matthews -- should Seattle expect a new defensive front to attack or is it just some fluky numbers to open the year?
A: It’s just fluky numbers. He’s been the recipient of coverage sacks and blocking misalignments and playcalling. While it’s great to see Clay Matthews back in LA racking up sacks, it’s not a fair indication of his performance overall.
Q: The only team to give up 50+ twice in the last two years is obviously the Rams. I mean, giving up 50+ at any point is impressive but twice in less than a year is really something. And this time it wasn’t against Patrick Mahomes. The weird thing is that I do not associate the Rams with “Bad defense” but this is where we end up sometimes under McVay. Things seemed fine in the first three weeks -- what went wrong on Sunday? Can the defense turn it around quick and be ready for Thursday night in Seattle?
A: Yeah, it was really unpredictable because of how good the Rams’ defense had been in the first three weeks. They got three turnovers against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1 (although one was a gift in the form of a screen pass thrown backwards that the Rams scooped up), and then put the clamps on the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns in Weeks 2 and 3. So to come out against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and allow three touchdowns on the first four possessions was just unbelievable. Credit the Bucs, though. They did a very good job at the line. QB Jameis Winston did a good job getting the ball out quickly. And obviously they have the talent with their downfield targets in WR Mike Evans, WR Chris Godwin and TE O.J. Howard to get open. The game got away from the Rams, though the offense fought back pretty gamely to stay in it as CB Marcus Peters’ late pick-six had the Rams within five points.
But yes, there’s reason to think they can get back on track. The first keypoint will be yall’s gameplan. The Panthers and Bucs had a similar gameplan of getting the ball out quickly to deny DL Aaron Donald much opportunity to disrupt things as they double- and triple-teamed him frequently. So part of the equation will be how much time QB Russell Wilson uses to throw. The Rams haven’t gotten much pressure outside of Donald though EDGE Dante Fowler Jr. was much better in Weeks 2 and 3 than he was in 1 and 4. Perhaps he’s due for a bounce-back performance. And the other major key is turnovers. The Rams have six already this season with four interceptions. Wilson hasn’t thrown a pick this year. That’s an obvious and major flashpoint.
Q: I think the Seahawks’ biggest concern is stopping Todd Gurley. Stop Gurley, stop Malcolm Brown, force Jared Goff to throw 68 more passes and see if his arm officially falls off, crawls out the stadium, makes it to Pike Place Market, and throws a salmon into the moon. Gurley is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry in the last three games and he’s not been a threat in the passing game. Brown seems ... better? What’s the situation on the run game and can Gurley still frustrate, annoy, and beat the Seahawks?
A: Yeah, this is the hardest one to understand.
Todd Gurley had five carries on Sunday. Five. While some people suggested the Rams were pressed into a pass-heavy approach once they were down 21-0, they passed the ball on 14 of the 17 plays before they built that deficit (the other three plays were a gut sweep to Kupp and two carries for Brown). It was just a very abnormal gameplan for an abnormal game that created a very abnormal line for Gurley.
The question of why is very hard to answer right now.
I think part of it is the motivation not to overuse Gurley early on this season. The Rams used the line that Gurley’s knee succumbed to “wear and tear” last year. The only way to avoid going through the same this year is, well, to not use him as much. What’s strange is that the Rams didn’t use Brown or rookie RB Darrell Henderson Jr. more if they wanted to preserve Gurley. Instead, he still got 76% of the snaps and the Rams just abandoned the run. He has 49 carries through four games. In 2018’s first four games, he had 79. That’s a 38% decline. And while he had 11 targets in Week 4, he had just six in the first three games compared to 14 through the first three games a year ago. The bottom line is he’s being used less. Purposely.
Can he still frustrate, annoy, and beat damn near anyone? Certainly. But if he’s not having his number called and the offensive line isn’t on their game, at the end of the day he’s just another running back. I don’t have to tell you of all people what that’s worth.
Q: John Fassel is a popular coach not just with the Rams, but among all assistants in the NFL. How is special teams performing this season? Is it still a highlight like it was during the year when the Rams struggled in all other phases of the game?
A: Well, it’s not quite living up to par, but par for this group isn’t par for the league. Teams has long been a strength, but there’s been a bit of a quantity decline. The Rams have just one kick return for a unit that was long one of the better groups in the league with former Rams RB Benny Cunningham and WR Pharoh Cooper starring in their return duties. KR/PR JoJo Natson Jr. is a lightning bug, but he’s fielded some punts that he probably should have assumed were headed into the end zone. P Johnny Hekker is doing well but hasn’t been spectacular which is a step back for him, frankly.
The strongest member of special teams has been K Greg Zuerlein.
bonus: you’re too well informed for me to sneak any players past you, but have you heard that will dissly is the best tight end in the division?
I refuse to acknowledge bonus questions. This is outside the agreed upon structure that we signed in writing. Good day, sir. Good day!